Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas A&M

The program

Well, this is a timely topic. Today Texas A&M officially announced it would leave the Big 12 at the end of this school year and seek affiliation with another conference for next season. A&M's Big 12 tenure was but a blip compared to its lengthy Southwest Conference tradition, but switching leagues will mean the Aggies will be in a different league from seemingly eternal rivals Texas and, to a much lesser extent, Baylor and Texas Tech.

Texas A&M has a good football tradition. Not among the nation's elite, but very respectable. The Aggies have won 18 conference titles, including 17 in the SWC and a Big 12 title in 1998, thanks to a rally and overtime upset of No. 1 Kansas State. A member of the SWC throughout the conference's lifetime (1915-1996), the Aggies won at least one SWC title in every decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. A&M also won a national title in 1939, and halfback John David Crow, one of coach Bear Bryant's famed "Junction Boys," won the Heisman Trophy for the Aggies in 1957.

Beyond the on-field achievements, Texas A&M is probably best known for its fan/program traditions, such as the 12th Man, the Reveille dog mascot (who goes to class; class is dismissed if the dog barks), the scoreboard at the Reveille cemetery next to the stadium, Midnight Yell Practice, kissing after touchdowns, Yell Leaders in white, the white rally towels waving, the "Gig 'em" thumbs up gesture, the Aggie War Hymn, so many random chants and cheers, the massive stands at Kyle Field swaying, the band playing the ultra-dramatic "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" during tense moments... on and on and on it goes.

In Sports Illustrated's farewell to the SWC, Gary Cartwright wrote that "Aggies were zealots, superpatriots, bumpkins." He also wrote that his grandmother, a devout Aggie fan, would kill a chicken on every gameday, study its entrails, and then put the "appropriately colored" candle in the window before listening to the Aggie came on the radio.

And then there is A&M's ancient grudge of a rivalry with Texas. They always play (played?) on Thanksgiving weekend, and A&M used to have a huge bonfire as a pep rally before the game, until it tragically collapsed in 1999, killing 12 people. Texas holds a sizeable 75-37-5 lead in the series, but the Aggies have scored some stunning upsets in the series and the games are often fiercely contested. A&M won in Austin last year. It's an obsessive rivalry. Texas sings "it's goodbye to A&M" in "Texas Fight." Much of the Aggie War Hymn is anti-Longhorn venom, singing, "Goodbye to Texas University, so long to the orange and white" and "saw Varsity's horns off." The Aggies are fairly obsessive about sawing the Longhorns' horns off, even selling shirts reference a Bible verse about "sawing off the horns of the wicked."

Finally, it seems A&M's desire to get out from behind Texas' shadow, and that irritating Longhorn Network pushing the envelope, have led to the Aggies' secession. A&M will surely try to keep this series going as a nonconference game, but it's tough to know how Texas would react to that. I'm afraid all those goodbyes in their fight songs could come true, in a way in which no college football fan wins.

Best player ever

John David Crow
There are plenty of good choices here, but I'll go with Crow, the school's only Heisman winner. A&M celebrates traditions, maybe like no other school, and Crow has almost mythical status in College Station. He played both ways, a marvel of an athlete who could both run and throw. In 1956, he was on the first Aggie team to beat Texas at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. In 1957, although injuries limited him to seven games, he ran for 562 yards and six touchdowns, passed for five touchdowns and racked up five interceptions on defense. Coach Bear Bryant told Heisman voters they should "do away with the thing" if they didn't vote for Crow. Vote for him they did, making Crow the only player Bryant ever coached who won the Heisman.

2011 outlook

The Aggies may be the primary challenger to Oklahoma in their last year in the Big 12. Last year coach Mike Sherman, with his team on a three-game losing streak, made the gutsy decision to bench quarterback Jerrod Johnson, only the school's alltime leading passer. He went with backup Ryan Tannehill, who led A&M on a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season, ramping up expectations for 2011, Tannehill's senior season.

Tannehill is surrounded by a loaded offense. Running back Cyrus Gray is the leading rusher returning in the Big 12 (1,133 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns). The receiving corps features Jeff Fuller, who had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2010, and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who battled injuries while having a down year last season. Skill position players need a good offensive line to shine, and the Aggies have one of the Big 12's best offensive lines.

The A&M defense has improved in each of Sherman's three years. The defensive line and secondary are especially strong, but questions at linebacker could be a concern.

The big question: Can A&M post its first 10-win season since 1998? A 10-win campaign would likely mean a BCS berth for the Aggies. They will no doubt have pressure/a target on them since they've announced they are leaving the Big 12. The Aggies surely wouldn't enjoy being on the other end of a 16-2 flag disparity against a team leaving the league (re: A&M's home upset of Nebraska last year). But, assuming it's just the home teams getting a few calls, per normal procedure, this is a talented Aggie team. I do have pause picking a team with a .500 coach to win 10 games. And now teams will be ready for Tannehill. He no doubt benefitted from teams spending the offseason preparing for Johnson only to get the backup quarterback.

The schedule is favorable. A&M has five of its nine Big 12 games at home, including key matchups with fellow Oklahoma-chasers Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas. They have a brutal game at Oklahoma, tricky trips to Texas Tech and Kansas State, plus a nonconference game with Arkansas in Dallas. I think A&M is good, but I also think a lot of Big 12 teams between Oklahoma and Kansas can beat each other, so I can't justify picking A&M to win 10 in the regular season. But we'll see. Either way, it's going to be an interesting autumn in College Station.

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